Monday, 2 October 2017

Can you earn a living as a poet?

In the latest Acumen there's this quote by Hilary Davies which sounds true to me - "it is now possible to make a living of sorts as a poet, as it never was before, but this does entail being willing to engage with the public in ways that were not there, or not required before." It's not an issue that worries me except when I do free workshops - am I undercutting people who are trying to "make a living of sorts"?

I missed the session about money at the Poetry Book Fair in London on Saturday. Fortunately some notes are online. They're worth a read.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

FreeVerse 2017

A rather short visit this year (I had other commitments) but it was still valuable. Amongst other books I bought Paul Stephenson's "Selfie with Waterlilies", Peter Daniels' "A Season in Eden" and (long overdue) Katy Evans-Bush's "Forgive the Language".

I had time to attend one reading, by poets from Gatehouse Press. Peter Daniels read some poems from his book. The Norwich-based press is run by about 15 volunteers. They produce the Lighthouse journal too.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Morocco

I visited Morocco long ago, Interailing by myself. This time I was on a guided tour. We visited Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Volubilis (Roman remains), Fez (tanneries!), Merzouga (near the patch of sand bottom-right of this map), Todra Gorge, Quarzazate (abandoned), Kasbah Ait Benhaddou (it appears in "Gladiators" and many other films), Tijzha (a village in the High Atlas), over the Tizi'n'Tichka (2,260m above the sea level, the highest major mountain pass of North Africa), Essaouira (a fishing/sea-side town, once Portuguese - a back alley is below), and Marrakech with its Djemma el Fna. Motorways to mule-tracks, palaces to hovels, deserts to seasides. And we took in the French, Arab, Bedouin, Berber and Jewish influences. The New Town (French) / Old Town division was obvious in the big cities. The Jewish areas are still known as such, though most of the Jews left in a hurry. Some of the areas they abandoned are still no-go areas at night.

Lifestyles are changing. The semi-nomadic people want to settle down for the sake of their children's education. They like their high walls, the Moroccans. They surround factories, palaces and farms, with towers at the gates. Some are made of clay and straw. Rain and wind easily damages them. I couldn't tell whether ruins were years or centuries old. Warring tribes in previous centuries meant that battles were small-scale, involving fortified houses and villages rather than huge castles. People in some places are gradually building themselves new homes, abandoning the old ones. Some towns are empty. Even populated villages can seem abandoned in the heat of the days. Clues are satellite dishes, washing on the line, dates drying on the roof, and goalposts on wasteland.

We stayed in a mountain village, walking for an hour to get there, our luggage carried by mules. It hadn't long had mains electricity. Once it arrived, people got fridges and they didn't need to harvest food daily. They saw what other people had and wanted it too. But people still use mules to collect crops and provisions.

Life can be very seasonal. Up in the mountains we saw a subsistence group of 10 people - 3 generations, semi-nomadic. Near the sandy Sahara we saw how labour-intensive farming and irrigation can coax food out of sand - date palms (easy to manage, low on water use) providing cover for cabbage, maize, alfalfa to grow, watered by a series of narrow channels whose tributaries could be blocked by mud to share the water around. There were some similarities with how we looked after our allotment.

We were driven for hours through landscapes that could have been in Westerns, and through mountain passes that reminded me of Italy (Morocco has skiing resorts). Photos don't do justice to the spectacular views. The deep red soil in places looked like Crete's. The exteriors of houses, especially in the medinas, can belie the wealth within. We stayed in some smart hotels (once we had a four-poster bed), and some quirky hotels. Other times there was neither TV or air-conditioning. Wifi was only sometimes available. Alcohol wasn't in all hotels and was difficult to get it at all in some places. Bigger towns had bottle shops - our first stopping place. There was a Jewish tradition of distilling which continues in places, allegedly. Sometimes the accommodation blended into its surroundings. This hotel on the side of the gorge had good views - a ribbon of green in the valley.

We stopped off at a weekly market which looked like a car-boot sale. We bought 2 packets of seeds, though we could have bought much more stuff - domestic ware especially.

In Essaouira we had a meal in a steamy back-street cafe where you took the fish that you'd brought earlier. I wouldn't have gone near the place normally, let alone eat there. And we ate street foot in the square at Marrakech. One breakfast up in the mountains included a kettle of water, a jar of Nescafe and a pot of porridge with honey.

And of course, we saw life in the Medinas - Fes with its confusing 9,400 alleys, Marrakech where you stay on the right to have a better chance of avoiding the mopeds and motorbikes that are let in. I'm still rather nervous about such places with their dark, narrow alleys, and I can't haggle. In some towns there are collectives where items are labelled. Going there first to check prices before haggling is a good idea.

I wasn't sure what to expect of the Sahara part of the visit, but as you can see, it's like you see in films. We went for an hour or so by camel until in a hollow we saw where we'd be spending the night. I slept under canvas. Others slept rough until the wind rose. The milky way was very clear.

In the morning I climbed a dune to catch sunrise. Then it was back on the camels for breakfast.

Yes, this is a tree of goats. Goats will climb Argan trees to eat the fruit whose nuts are used to make oil, but this particular scene is a stunt. Elsewhere we saw Barbary apes in more natural surroundings.

Near Volubilis is Moulay Idriss Zerhoun where non-Muslims were not permitted to stay overnight until 2005. Here for a change, colours were on the outside of the houses.

I knew I'd have lot of time to read so I took the story collections "Whoever you choose to love" by Colette Paul, "The New Uncanny" edited by Sarah Eyre and Ra Page, and "Tell her you love her" by Bridget O'Connor. I took poetry too - "Ticker-tape" by Rishi Dastidar, and the latest issue of "Orbis". I took some ideas for poems and stories with me, returning with a poem a piece of Flash and a page of travel notes.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Tania Hershman and prose/poetry

A while ago I wondered why not many writers wrote both poetry and prose, and why few if any of them published books combining poems and prose. Then it dawned on me that many so-called "Poetry" books actually contained Flash, vignettes or micro-texts. Think of Hugo Williams, parts of Lachlan Mackinnon's "Small Hours", "Citizen" by Claudia Rankine, etc. Some books are an assortment of several categories, classified as poetry for marketing/Award reasons or because of historical inertia.

I suspect that people whose work spans a broad spectrum don't care much about where in the range a particular piece is, until submission time. Readers care most when the advertized category doesn't match their assessment. Roughly I'd suggest to reader-friendly writers that -

  • If the line-breaks (like any other features/words) are doing little or nothing, leave them out, especially if there's a risk that they might look like an attempt to divert attention from weak content
  • If the context might make readers skim over a text that would reward careful reading, it might be worth adding line-breaks as a hint that a different reading strategy is recommended. In this situation a common ploy is to make each stanza into a similarly sized rectangle to show that the particular positioning of the line-breaks doesn't much matter.

Tania Hershman's a particularly interesting case. She's almost simultaneously published two books - a poetry book "Terms and Conditions" (Nine Arches Press) and a prose book "Some of us glow more than others" (Unthank Books). Reading the two books together it's not always clear why a text should have been printed in one book rather than another. Indeed, a text called "What is it that fills us" appears in both, the poetry version being a slightly shorter version of the prose version.

Reviewers have applauded the genre-free approach (and the science/literature, mainstream/avant-garde mix) of these books. It's interesting to see that despite the challenge that this diversity might pose for readers, there's an emerging consensus about which pieces in "Some of us glow more than others" are best.

One day maybe, books won't be classified as "Poetry" or "Prose" but as "short texts". To do so now will reduce the chance of being reviewed and will reduce sales. "Poetry" is currently the safest option if there's a wide variety of content.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Publishing and luck

Authors will sometimes say how a lucky break led to their breakthrough publication - being in the right place at the right time. But I often suspect that if they hadn't have been lucky at that moment, they'd have been lucky later, because they were trying to put themselves in the right places anyway. They made their own luck.

I've been lucky with my publishers. Writers sometimes get published by people who soon go bust. It's gone the other way with me, my publishers' growing reputations doing me no harm. They made their own luck too.

Nine Arches Press is going from strength to strength. It's become an ACE "National Portfolio Organisation" for 5 years, and it's been awarded money for a shorter project. Jane Commane has led many writing workshops, co-edits "Under the Radar" magazine, and is co-organiser of the Leicester Shindig poetry series. In collaboration with The Poetry School she runs Primers. These activities feed into each other - running workshops and magazines helps to discover talent and increase readership, and the more people who become involved with these activities, the more that sales increase, which in turn attracts bigger writers and more reviews. The icing on the cake is that Jane has a collection out with Bloodaxe in 2018. How does she find the time? There's an interview online

Nell Nelson's Happenstance won The Michael Marks Publishers’ Award for pamphlet publishing and is gradually publishing more books. Like Jane, there's a strong talent-spotting element to much that she does, and much networking. She's involved with several other activities - writing articles/reviews for Dark Horse and PN Review, judging, tutoring with Writers' Forum, etc - and hasn't given up writing poems yet. There's an interview online

Monday, 31 July 2017

Some recent online pieces of mine

All prose -

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Rejection

Did you see Nadal's loss at Wimbledon 2017? He was 2 sets down, managed heroically to catch up, then lost 13-15 in the final set. Soul destroying. Similarly, some of my literary rejections hit harder than others.

Since my pamphlet publication I've been on 3 short/long lists for publication of another poetry book or leaflet. In chronological order, I've been on a short-list of 2, a short-list of 5, and a long-list of 40, which doesn't look like a good trend. The most painful of these was when the short-list was announced before the judge had chosen the winner - getting into the short-list was the hard bit surely. But I lost the final set. So close and yet so far.

This week the short/long lists of the Bath and the Bristol short story competitions were announced. I entered both and got into neither list. Depressing. I was hoping I might get into one of the competitions' anthologies.

The other rejections that depress me are when, to recover confidence, I send some of my better poems to a minor magazine and I can't even get into that. I've had these this month too.

It's not all bad news. Pieces accepted months ago are coming out in next few weeks. Also I've changed my submission recording process, making it easier to produce some statistics. I now know that about 1 in 6 of times I submit (each submission might contain 3 poems, or one story) I get an acceptance. By the law of averages I'm due for an acceptance any moment now.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Next Review ceased publication

The UK magazine "Next Review" (poetry and the odd story) has ceased publication.

And I suspect that the "Journal of Microliterature" has disappeared too.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Prague

I'm just back from 3 nights in Prague. Last time I was there, about 30 years ago, it was communist. Now convoys of open-top cars carry orientals around, the happy wedding couples posing dramatically against the background of the castle whenever they have a spare moment.

I recall few details of my first trip. I'm sure that Tesco wasn't around. Craft beers and street food have arrived. So have chimney-cakes. This week we drank in a Monastery brewery that has re-opened after the onslaught of the multi-nationals. I had blueberry beer, IPA, and beer ice-cream there.

Years after my first trip I wrote Prague '86 which appeared in my book. I fear I messed up some of the details. Mala Strana appears in my story. I managed to come up with some new story ideas while I was over there this time, inspired more by the Best British Short Stories anthology I read than by the setting.

We visited the Jewish zone. This Kafkaesque statue is outside a Synagogue. We went to the Kafka museum and passed the literature museum. I was surprised that Kafka wasn't more exploited around the city. I saw a Kafka cafe, and a Metamorphosis cafe, but that's all. We did the tour of the old town hall - behind the clock on the hour, then down into the catacombs (which used to be the city's ground level). They plan to rebuild the column that was in the square. We climbed the tower of the new town hall as well. In several places around the city we saw marks showing where the 2002 floods reached.

The UK influence goes beyond Tesco - we saw a bust of Churchill down a side-street, and a memorial for the Czechs who died while in the RAF. Lennon and Sherlock Holmes are remembered too. And all the receptionists and ticket sellers spoke good English.

We spent quite a time in the parks - Petrin Park with its Hunger wall, maze, and Eiffel tower, and then Letna Park with its metronome built since my last visit. In the hotel I treated myself to Czech porridge, semolina and polenta. I liked the lard pate too.

Friday, 30 June 2017

A UK submission schedule for the rest of 2017

The second half of the year seems to have fewer competition and magazine-window opportunities for me. Here they are -

Sunday, 25 June 2017

New Walk magazine closes

After 14 issues the UK poetry and prose magazine "New Walk" is shutting down. Instead they'll produce poetry pamphlets - see https://newwalkmagazine.com/purchase-submit.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Reading stories online

There are some easy-to-dip-into magazines online if you like reading stories that are up to 1000 words long and not too literary. The author bios are online too, so you can be selective. Here are a few to choose from

Of course, you can send them stories too - some of them pay. And you can often leave comments about the pieces. The emergence of Flash has led some magazines to specify minimum word-lengths. The following readable sites have pieces longer than 500 words -

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Writers and families

You can prove anything with statistics. By looking at this graph see if you can deduce when I got married, when the first child became independent, and when they both became independent.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Another UK prose magazine bites the dust

After 10 issues, "Short Fiction" is no longer going to appear in print. "Metropolitan" (another prose-only, non-genre magazine) ceased in 1998. "Panurge" closed in 1993. "Riptide journal" and "Unthology" are still going, and so is "Granta" (though that takes poetry as well now).

Simple economics works against printed story magazines. Understandably, people are more likely to subscribe to magazines that they're likely to appear in. During its decade of existence , "Short Fiction" published only 120 stories. In contrast the latest issue of "The North" published 173 poems by 84 poets.

The increasing popularity of Flash fiction has helped prose magazines survive - more authors per issue! "Flash" is still being published. And genre magazines (SF, etc) continue to live a charmed life.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Writers' and Artists' sheds

Many writers and artists like to work in their garden. The Guardian had a Best writers' sheds feature (Americans seem to prefer writing huts in the wilderness). Here are some that I've seen.
Roald Dahl's cubby hole at Great Missenden (with me sitting in it). He liked wedging himself in.

Henry Moore's summer house at Perry Green, which I visited last weekend. Nearby he had various studios and barns to work in. This shed was nearest his house.

Henry Moore's chair in his summer house. Looks like he also wedged himself in.

The studio of a friend's late husband - a geosodic dome to let in as much light as possible. At Perry Green, Henry Moore's "Plastic Studio" was like a partially built greenhouse.

GB Shaw's shed at Shaw's Corner, Ayot St Lawrence - it could be rotated so that the light was right.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

In the magazines

I'm in the current issues of the paper publications "Envoi", "Acumen" (a letter), and "Unthology" and am due out in the forthcoming issues of "Interpreter's House", "Cake" and "Flash". Online I'm in the current "Firefly" and I'm due out in "Spelk" and "Ink, Sweat & Tears". 10 acceptances so far this year.

I'm not used to such exposure. I did my market research at the start of the year (A UK prose submission schedule for early 2017, etc) so I've been able to keep a minimum of 20 submissions in circulation, resending rejected pieces out quickly. And I've not wasted time sending to the growing list of magazines that I realise I've next to no chance of being in.

Friday, 5 May 2017

New Meanings

In http://www.moriapoetry.com/stewart.html by Steven J. Stewart it says that

  • Barthes sees the evolution of language terminating in its present condition, one of absence, where literature only exists in the "absence of all signs," hence the "zero degree of writing"
  • the language of poetry no longer exists as a means of signifying or representing the world. Whereas the project of classical literature was to express an existing thought or image with the right words, the project of modern literature is to organize words in such a way that a new, previously-nonexistent thought or image is expressed
  • Connections are not properly speaking abolished, they are merely reserved areas, a parody of themselves, and this void is necessary for the density of the Word to rise out of a magic vacuum, like a sound and a sign devoid of background, like ‘fury and mystery.’
  • While words don’t relate in the classical sense, each word furthers the creation of the "continuum" until a critical “density” is achieved and the reader experiences the poem as “fury and mystery.” The poem becomes like a Zen koān, an unanswerable riddle that resists the reader’s efforts to solve it. As the reader experiences the poem, chasing the false leads, she comes to a type of enlightenment, a sense of the mysterious, problematic nature of language.
  • It's an effect that Robert Kelly calls presentness; he says that the power of poetry is "to employ prepositional language not to make assertions, but to make, for a moment, lush gardens where one is free from assertions, exalted in the fragrance of presentness"
  • Paz writes that "In order to experience a poem, we must hear it, see it, contemplate it — convert it into an echo, a shadow, nothingness"

I know what he's getting at. I don't think I could write texts that generate this kind of meaning.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Unthology 9 Launch

Tonight I helped launch Unthology 9 with Gordon Collins, Judy Birkbeck, Tim Sykes, Roelof Bakker and Jane Roberts, presided over by the tireless Ashley Stokes. I read the final part of my episodic piece, providing some explanation. It's available on the Kindle

The last time I read in Norwich I was trying to sell magazines for Cambridge Univ's poetry society, so it must have been about 30 years ago. This time I read part of a story rather than poems, and the setting was rather grander than the brown-walled hall of long ago - "the library", the venue for the launch, was the UK's first public subscription library.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

CB1 Poetry - Geraldine Clarkson and Paul Stephenson

Last night I saw Geraldine Clarkson and Paul Stephenson at the CB2 venue (like OuseMuse it's in a basement). Standing room only. I've not encountered Geraldine Clarkson before - I'll keep my eyes open for her work in future. Paul and I have been bumping into each other off and on for years. He going from strength to strength, able to combine rhythm, repetition and reportage (elsewhere I've seen him do Oulipo) with emotion ranging from humour to horror, and an effective delivery - only a few words between the poems, but his Paris poems speak for themselves.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

States of Independence (Leicester, 2017)

On Saturday I went to States of Independence in Leicester. It's the 8th one. I think I've been to most of them. I recommend it to writers of all types, but especially small-press people. I couldn't attend all the events/readings I wanted to - there are too many. In the end I plumped for "How to Submit to a Literary Magazine" (Maria Taylor), "Shoestring Spectacular, with poets from Romania, America and Leicester" (I went to see Roy Marshall), and "How to Talk About Poetry" (Nottingham STANZA) - they looked at Jacob Polley's "Jackself".

I bought "The book of tides" by Angela Readman (Nine Arches Press, 2016), "The Great Animator" by Roy Marshall (Shoestring Press, 2017) and "Swimming with Jellyfish" by Stuart Pickford (Smith Doorstep). I've already started on the Angela Readman book. I've read (and liked) her story collection, "Don't try this at home" and am already finding her poems interesting, varied and worthy of slow reading.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

"A short history of synchronised breathing" by Vanessa Gebbie

Vanessa Gebbie's one of the writers I follow. I never know what she'll come up with next - novel? poems? short stories? Flash? Metafiction? Her latest book of prose (available from Cultured Llama) is more on the "comic/ strange/ thought-provoking" side. My write-up of "A short history of synchronised breathing" (with stories from BBC Radio 4, Smokelong Quarterly, etc) is now online. I'm unbiased of course, but I'm quoted on the back cover.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Ouse Muse

It's a struggle organising poetry events. The web has made publicity easier, and getting performers isn't always the hardest part. Venues are a problem though - cost (£100/night isn't unknown for a pub-room, even though the pub makes money from people buying drinks), location (city centres are expensive, church-halls are lifeless), atmosphere (you don't want too much noise from a nearly bar, but you want to be close to the action), and access (without wheelchair access, grants and help from the council become more difficult) are all issues.

Yesterday I popped over to Bedford to see Stephen Payne (Smiths Knoll and HappenStance) perform. The evenings are run by Ian McEwen (Templar and Cinnamon) who's found a good venue and a list of good poets. Ouse Muse has been going for a while and is well worth a visit. A wide range of styles are presented, and there are open-mic opportunities.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Storia della bambina perduta

My Italian isn't good, but I can battle through novels, the most recent one being "Storia della bambina perduta" by Elena Ferrante. Reading in Italian emphasises my tendency to see a text as a construct, a contrivance. In "Close Calls with Nonsense", Stephen Burt advises readers who are searching for a poem's "meaning" to "Look for self-analyses or for frame-breaking moments". It works for prose too - when authors want to get a point over, they will flip from "show" to "tell", or dissolve the fourth wall. I've picked out some tell-tale moments in my write-up. They are perhaps in character, suited to the occasionally reflective Elena whose first-person narrative it is. Some other characters however become rather overloaded with plot functions at the expense of believability.

There are few admirable characters, but as she writes on p.429, "Only in bad novels do people always think the right things, does every action have a cause, are there pleasant and unpleasant people, good and bad, and a happy ending"

Monday, 16 January 2017

Some miscellaneous literary links

  • Issue one of (b)OINK magazine has appeared - fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, art. Looks good.
  • While reading Flash Frontier I stumbled across Ingrid Jendrzejewski's bio - "... studied creative writing at the University of Evansville, then physics at the University of Cambridge. She has soft spots for Go, cryptic crosswords and the python programming language". Her 2016 list of pubs (36 items) is impressive - Aesthetica, 50-Word Stories, Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine, Flash Frontier, Litro, and various competition mentions (first place, Bath Flash Fiction Award, etc). One to watch.
  • If you like diagrams constructed from texts (Hamlet for example), you may be interested in Network Theory, Plot Analysis by Franco Moretti
  • Matthew Stewart's The Best U.K. Poetry Blogs of 2016 begins with "There's no point beating about the bush or glossing things over: 2016 hasn’t been a vintage year for U.K. poetry blogs" but he puts a brave face on it

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Maria Taylor and Gregory Leadbetter

2 poets, 2 pamphlets, 2 books, 2 publishers. Both of these poets had publications last year which were successors to earlier publications.

At a recent poetry meeting that I went to there was discussion about the changing role of pamphlets. They needn't be a stepping stone towards first-book publication. If you produce only 2 or 3 decent poems a year and you don't want to compromise on quality, a pamphlet's the only alternative to waiting a decade or so between publications. These two poets have interchanged publishers (Nine Arches Press doesn't do pamphlets, HappenStance doesn't do many books). Maria's taken 4 years to produce a pamphlet, and Gregory's taken 9 to produce a book, so neither has rushed. And it shows - both the second publications feel the right length; they're free of padding and have long acknowledgements sections. Both of the later publications have a prevailing but not monopolising theme that provides cohesion.

Both the poets have families and have written or edited other books in the interim, and they both write reviews, so they haven't been twiddling their thumbs while waiting for poems to arrive. All it needs is patience. What perhaps helps is that they inhabit creative writing environments that enable them to keep in touch with poetry-writing even when they're not feverishly writing poetry themselves.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Poachers and Gamekeepers

Gerry Cambridge edits "The Dark Horse" magazine and Nell Nelson runs HappenStance press. They both review, write articles, and still manage to write poetry. Both have written books of (and about) poetry, and both judge competitions - Gerry Cambridge is currently judging the National Poetry Competition.

  • Down with Poetry! by Helena Nelson (Happenstance, 2016) includes poems from "Ambit", "PN Review", and "The Rialto" - a heavier list of magazines than many unlight poetry books can boast. Several of the poems are about poetry. You shouldn't assume that the views expressed in these poems represent the publisher's opinions, but prospective submitters could do worse than read this collection.
  • How (not) to get your poetry published by Helena Nelson (Happenstance, 2016) has exercises and tables of information.
  • Notes for lighting a fire by Gerry Cambridge (Happenstance, 2011) is a book of poems that's been reviewed in "The TLS", "New Walk Magazine", "Critical Survey", "Poetry London", etc.
  • The Dark Horse by Gerry Cambridge (Happenstance, 2016) is the history of the magazine and much else besides. Well worth a read even if you're not thinking of submitting to the magazine.